Kidnappers’ invasion of South-West and the conspiracy of silence

For weeks now, people have been sharing messages on the social media, warning the public to avoid travelling on certain highways in the South-West because of the activities of kidnappers, believed to be herdsmen. Victims have also narrated their ordeals in the hands of the kidnappers. Some who visited home from abroad and fell victims even added that they would never return to Nigeria again because of the horror they faced and the trauma they suffered after the experience.

The stories were that the kidnappers would intermittently block the highways, kidnap some travellers and take them into the bush, abuse them physically and sexually, extort ransoms from their relatives, and even kill those whose relatives did not quickly pay any ransom or those who did not pay something substantial.

Because of the unreliability of things shared on the social media, these stories sometimes felt like fairytales or exaggerated stories meant to scare people and further an agenda — political, ethnic, religious and otherwise. Many people with discerning mind reasoned that since the ethnicity of those accused of this highway kidnapping is Fulani, some people could be trying to demonise and stereotype the Fulani ethnic group and get back at President Muhammadu Buhari, who is also a Fulani. Some people could also want to fabricate stories of insecurity to create a narrative that the President was failing in his duties. In addition, most times, people who live outside Nigeria try to exaggerate the issue of insecurity in the country based on what they see in foreign news channels.

Therefore, in spite of all the evidence, many people took the kidnap stories with a pinch of salt. It sounded far-fetched that people of Fulani extraction could have the effrontery to camp in the South-West forests, kidnapping the people and creating enormous fear in a zone that is hundreds of kilometres away from the North-East and North-West where the Fulani people are indigenous. Local criminals could indulge in kidnapping and disappear into unidentified houses, where they keep their victims until a ransom is paid, but for kidnappers of Fulani extraction to abduct people on highways in the South-West and lead them into the forest where they keep them until a ransom is paid sounds unbelievable. In the North where Hausa is spoken, it may be easy for a Fulani to go unnoticed, but anywhere in the South, a Fulani stands out by his looks and language. Understanding the local terrain is also not easy for non-indigenes. Using the forest as a hideout and keeping kidnap victims there are also not the usual modus operandi of kidnappers.

In May when Prof Olayinka Adegbehingbe, an orthopaedic surgeon at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State, was kidnapped on the Ibadan-Ife Expressway while returning from Lagos, he revealed that his kidnappers were of Fulani extraction, and that a ransom of N5.045 million was paid before he was released. His story and that of others who had become victims while travelling on the highway in the South-West gave credence to the stories making the rounds in the social media about the high kidnapping rate on the region’s highways.

However, over the weekend, two key Yoruba figures published stories that gave more insight into the kidnap menace in the region. One was Mr Kehinde Bamigbetan, who left office last month as the Commissioner for Information and Strategy under the administration of Mr Akinwunmi Ambode, erstwhile governor of Lagos State. He narrated how he and his wife left Lagos for Ife in the afternoon, but on the way, he decided to confirm the stories of kidnap from his contacts within the Osun State Governor’s Office and the palace of the Ooni of Ife. The contacts confirmed to him that those stories were true and that it was not safe to travel on the Ibadan-Ife Expressway, especially from 5pm to 8pm and from 6am to 8am. Based on the warning he got, he decided to lodge in a hotel in Ibadan that evening to continue on the journey the next day. He said his wife told him that she had never seen him that “sober and visibly defeated” in the 30 years she had known him.

The second was the Aare Onakakanfo of Yorubaland, Iba Gani Adams. In an interview with a newspaper, he acknowledged the existence of the kidnappers of Fulani extraction and spoke of efforts he had made to reach out to the South-West governors and traditional rulers to tackle the menace of kidnapping the way his group went after the Badoo cultists and militants causing problems in the South-West. He regretted that most of them had not shown commitment or even responded to his letter. He explained that the endorsement of the governors and traditional rulers was needed before the involvement of his group, the Oodua People’s Congress, so as not to put himself and his group in trouble with the law in the event of casualties while trying to flush out the kidnappers from forests.

In January 2018 when Ayo Fayose, who was then the governor of Ekiti State, took measures to protect his state against further killings by herdsmen, the people who condemned him the most were from the South-West. Curiously, those who condemned him placed party loyalty to the All Progressives Congress and President Buhari above the safety of the region.

It is not surprising that Adams did not get the support he needed from the South-West governors and traditional leaders. Across the country, politicians and public figures are afraid to publicly take any step to protect their people against any crime linked with a Fulani because of fear of being seen as enemies of the Presidency and the security chiefs. Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State and his people mourned their killed indigenes repeatedly. During a visit by a delegation of Benue State leaders of thought to the Presidential Villa in January 2018, after another round of killings, the President told them to accommodate their countrymen “in the name of God.” When Ortom got tired of burying his people and decided to take action against the herdsmen, he was portrayed as an enemy of the President, the Inspector-General of Police, the Minister of Defence, and even his party, the APC. He had to leave the party for the Peoples Democratic Party. Fayose faced the same backlash. In Enugu, after his people were massacred in Nimbo in April 2016 by herdsmen, Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi visited the President in Abuja rather than being visited by the President. Pictures showed him smiling and making obeisance while greeting the President. He was excoriated for that. But Ugwuanyi was seemingly careful not to give any impression of anger or sadness, so as not to be cast as an enemy of the President!

As serious as this kidnapping issue is, the Vice President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, who is from the South-West, has not paid any special attention to it. The National Leader of the APC and political leader of the South-West, Bola Tinubu, has not made it a key issue. The same thing goes for all the South-West governors. Nobody wants to raise a strong voice against it, for fear that the person may be seen as an enemy of the President. Even the vociferous APC supporters from the South-West who don’t hold any political posts do not like to talk about it, because they believe that doing so will depict the President and his administration in a bad light.

While this conspiracy of silence persists, the people who don’t have adequate security get kidnapped, tortured, sexually abused, humiliated, dehumanised, financially fleeced, and sometimes killed by strangers, right in their own land, just because political interest has to be placed above the safety and welfare of the people. It is a sad day.